Yukon gold, the sporting kind anyway, usually comes in individual events like skiing, running or cycling.
The territory’s small population and its distance from other communities often makes it difficult to be competitive in team sports.
So Friday’s gold-medal performances in boy’s basketball and midget boys hockey were extra sweet for the Yukon contingent at the Arctic Winter Games.
On the basketball court at Cook Inlet Academy, the Yukon boys faced a Northwest Territories team seeking revenge for two losses during round-robin play.
Yukon seemed to have NWT’s number all week, and Friday’s final was no different. The final score was 80-57.
Some nervous fumbling in the opening quarter kept the score close.
“We worked through it, and at half we had a nice six-point lead,” said Yukon coach Jamie Shaw.
The second half was all Yukon, as the team pulled away from NWT with strong performances from many players.
Sina Kazemi and Robin Cunningham pushed the Yukon lead up fast with several three-pointers, while Tim Steele-Beaver was strong under the basket, grabbing rebounds and sinking baskets.
Cunningham was a surprise force in the final, shooting for 17 points after struggling earlier in the week.
“Robin’s an excellent shooter, but sometimes he’s his own worst enemy,” said Shaw. “But he was really focused today, and he can really shoot when he wants to.”
Steele-Beaver hit 12 points in the final, and led Yukon scorers for the tournament, finishing third overall with 110 points, averaging 16 points per game.
NWT seemed to falter under the full-court press.
“Our goal was to keep in their face the whole time,” said Shaw. “They got tired and it affected their shots.”
“It was a great game, everyone played their role,” said rookie point guard Tony Nguyen. “Everybody worked hard and hustled. We were the team to beat and we showed it tonight.”
It was the ideal finish to a grueling week, and months of preparation.
“It all came together in the end,” said team captain David Pedersen, who had 12 points on the night and finished fifth in the scoring with 98 points.
“We’ve been working for months on this. We wanted it really bad.”
“It’s been a great experience,” said Yukon coach Jamie Shaw. “This is a really tough tournament. Seven games in five days, it really takes its toll on the athletes. I’m really proud of them.”
Down the road at the Soldotna Sports Centre, a similar story unfolded.
The Yukon midget boys faced a well-matched NWT crew. Both teams had two wins, no losses and a tie in the round robin, with NWT finishing ahead, due to a lower goals-against total.
The final was a rematch of a 3-3 draw the day before, so tensions were high heading in.
Yukon’s Chris Gleason didn’t waste any time, scoring the first goal of the game at the 26-second mark.
That seemed to take a bit of steam out of the NWT, but play was pretty even for the rest of the first period. NWT evened the score with 5 minutes to go in the period.
The score wouldn’t change until halfway through the second, when Nicholas Swizdaryk put one past the NWT goalie during a four-on-four skirmish.
Yukon carried the one-goal lead into the third period.
Lowell Johnston buried a short-handed goal early in the third, making the score 3-1, which took the wind out of NWT sails completely.
Things started to get a little rough in the last two minutes; with a two NWT players getting the gate for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Yukon’s Brad Holm would score a power play goal and Drew Pettitt would add an empty netter for a 5-1 final.
“It feels unbelievable,” said captain Nick Mauro, a veteran of the 2002 Games, where NWT knocked Yukon out in the semi-finals.
“This year we just took it from them, and it was wicked. It was a little bit of revenge for me and some of the other guys who were on that team.”
Ian Perrier was solid in net, stopping 17 of 20 shots and finishing the tournament with a 95-save percentage.
“Our goaltending was huge, Ian played really well, and so did Mitch (Heynen) when we called him up,” said coach Mike Young.
Team Yukon, essentially a pared down version of the Whitehorse midget AA Mustangs, managed to find their special teams when it counted, something they had struggled with earlier in the season. “We had a lot of power play goals, everybody bought in to the system and it paid off,” said Young.
“We came into this one not knowing how things would go, after tying them yesterday,” said Perrier.
“Everybody stepped up, nobody held anything back. We played our best game.”
The team has won other tournaments, but there’s something special about winning at the Arctic Winter Games, said Mauro.
“People are going to remember that.”
It will be a quick turnaround for the team, as they will return home to host the provincial championships in Whitehorse starting Tuesday.